Mind the gaps: transport and gender equality

9 Nov


Have you heard about the ‘gender commuting gap’? The papers have highlighted a finding published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), that men are more likely to commute long distances to work than women.  Over 60% of those who take at least an hour to reach their workplace are men, while in the East of England – a key region for commuting to London – this rises to 76%.

The ONS noted that men predominate among those making long commutes; those commuting longer distances into London; and those who work in a different region of the UK from the one they live in.  Meanwhile, women make up the majority of people who travel to work in 15 minutes or less.  Nonetheless, women are behind a general rise in long commuting times: the number of women travelling for a least an hour to and from work in the capital, has risen 46% since 2011, and in the country as a whole, women have experienced a 39% rise in long commuting times, compared to 27% for men, over the same time period.

So what’s behind the headline figures? Researchers have sought to delve deeper, and provide some insight into the numbers.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) used a different dataset to explore how parenthood and caring responsibilities might be associated with travel-to-work times.  They analysed panel data, where the same people are followed over time, to show that the gender gap in commuting opens up when women have children, and continues to grow over time.  In fact, the gender commuting gap, like the gender pay gap, grows year-on-year ‘for at least a decade after the first child in the family is born’. That’s right, the impact of having children can be seen in the gap between mothers’ and fathers’ pay and journeys to work for at least ten years. Of course, the IFS is the first to say that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the link between the two gender gaps is causal – we can’t say for certain that working locally leads to lower pay.  But it could be that such a relationship exists – the IFS speculates that opting to work in a smaller area could restrict women’s employment options, compared to more free-ranging men, and it is even possible that employers benefit from mothers choosing local work: they don’t necessarily need to compete as hard on wages if locality is key, compared to firms seeking to attract workers from further afield.  Other changes in parents’ working arrangements, such as part-time or flexible work also contribute to the gender pay gap.

The ONS mentions TUC research on growing commuting times for people who work in health, education and social care, as a possible reason why women’s commuting times might be increasing more than men’s – women make up the bulk of the workforce in these sectors. These jobs are not notably well-paid, and rising housing costs might explain why such workers are travelling longer distances to get to work.  This links with further analysis by another think tank, the Resolution Foundation.  The Resolution Foundation shows a generational dimension to commuting trends: younger workers are commuting for longer than older ones, likely explained by high living costs in city centres.  At the same time, millennials are earning less than previous generations, due to the long-term squeeze on pay since the financial crisis, so they may not be profiting from longer journeys to work in the same way that some older workers (notably men with families) may have been able to.  Taken altogether, the evidence suggests that women may be more likely to end up with both longer journeys and relatively poorer pay in future.

The picture of interlocking gender commuting gaps and gender pay gaps, led me to think about how important it is to view childcare, as well as transport, as infrastructure.  Parents who commute further often rely on others to do the school run, or to take children to childcare settings; such workers are still predominantly men, while the people dealing with the children are often women, many of whom work relatively nearby.  Interestingly, cycling is the most male-dominated means of transport for commuting, which seems emblematic of more men’s ability to make their own journeys, without the encumbrance of children or other caring responsibilities.  Cyclists may also be the kind of commuters who have access to better-equipped workplaces, able to accommodate changing facilities and bicycles.  Behind individual commutes of all sorts, there’s often a web of support, enabling those trips to be made. If childcare were considered more as part of the country’s infrastructure for investment, just as railways, buses and cycle paths are seen as integral to labour markets, then current gender gaps in experience might begin to disappear. Something tells me it could be quite a long journey from here to there.





Picture this

15 Oct

It’s not every day that a story from the art world captures the headlines, but over the last week or so, few can fail to have heard of the latest antics of street artist, Bansky.  Banksy has made a name (albeit an anonymous one) for himself, by placing stencil art on our streets and on the sides of buildings, inserting a subversive sensibility into our urban landscape. This week, as a print came up for auction in London, Bansky staged a meticulously organised prank which ensured his name was on all the front pages: as the hammer came down on ‘Girl with Balloon’, one of his most popular images, the artwork began to self-destruct.  A shredder has been concealed in the picture frame, and as the sale was completed, the mechanism was activated by remote control, and the print slid down its mounting to emerge half-shredded from the bottom of the frame.

This piece of ‘performance art’ shocked the normally unflappable auction room, and the piece was immediately removed.  The purchaser agreed to accept the piece in its new format, and it was renamed ‘Love is in the Bin’ and authenticated as a new work by Banksy.  There has been speculation that the hype around the story could have substantially increased the value of the artwork.

Under the radar, at the same sale, another landmark in art history was reached: Jenny Saville, a British painter, became the highest-priced living female artist, when her self-portrait, ‘Propped’ sold for over £8 million.  Her nude, overlaid with feminist text, challenges the male gaze.  I happened to see Jenny Saville in conversation at a recent event, where she talked about the importance of arts in the school curriculum – which is being eroded – and about the pleasure she gets in knowing that girls can draw from her work in galleries, while she grew up with a dearth of female artists to learn from.

There are some signs that the art world, like so many other sectors, has begun to wake up to issues of representation in the profession.  But while a clear majority of fine art graduates are female, they remain in a minority in terms for funding of their work, and gallery space.  Given these imbalances, it’s a shame that Banksy’s exploits have reached a far wider audience than Saville’s important moment in art history.  Maybe, as Jan Dalley, the Financial Times’ arts editor put it, ‘we get the art market we deserve’.  After all, Saville’s record-breaking price for an artwork by a woman is dwarfed by the $58 million achieved at auction for the highest-priced work by a living male artist, a balloon dog figure in steel by Jeff Koons.   Such a large gender gap in value is not a pretty picture.


Festival of Brexit Britain: some attractions

30 Sep

The Prime Minister has announced that there is to be a Festival of Brexit Britain in 2022, to showcase our country’s optimistic future outside the EU.  Inspired by the 1951 Festival of Britain, it will feature exhibits demonstrating the best of British culture and innovation. Imagine what it might look like ….


Enter through the Gate-au-way to Brexit Britain – a Perspex arch filled with finest British fruitcake makes a portal to the festive world.  You will be able to take part in a national ‘guess the weight’ competition – can you correctly estimate how much cake is in the complete arch, and the weight when every visitor has had a slice? (Imperial measures only).


Making a rare appearance will be the fantastic Pushmi-pullEU.  Naturally the Festival of Brexit Britain harks back to the original creature from the Dr Doolittle book, before the Sixties film made a star of a two-headed lamma. The heritage Pushmi-PullEU is half-gazelle, half unicorn, and feeds on an iconic British cherry tree, specially planted for the Festival:


The Festival of Britain had Skylon, and for the Festival of Brexit Britain there’s a new interactive experience, Skycon.  Guests can press a button on the Random Vision Generator and see keywords from the Referendum campaigns written in the sky above the festival:


And be sure not to miss the exciting art installation commissioned specially for the festival.  The Wicked Man is a sculptural megastructure forming the surround for the festival bonfire.  Just buy your own straw man from the Debate Tent and add to the conflagration which will illuminate the site for night-time festival goers:


Chuck out that Chequers – or Boris has a Plan (with apologies to IKEA)

28 Sep

Chuck out that Chequers

Come on, do it today

Prise off that caution, and throw it away

The negotiators are girly,

Too supine, not surly

That common rule book

Just does us no credit

We’re battling hard and we’ve come a long way,

Even No Deal would be kind of okay,

EU harmonisation

Is harming our nation

So chuck out that Chequers today.


Our land could be playful, and happy and light,

Rules loose and informal and stripey and bright,

Let’s use our resources

Let’s muster our forces

To fight Chequers oppression

With bold self-expression

We’re battling hard and we’ve come a long way,

Even No Deal would be kind of okay,

So don’t let PM May

Have everything her way,

Chuck out that Chequers, yes chuck out that Chequers,

Let’s chuck out that Chequers today!




Working models

22 Jul


I’d been mulling over work-life balance issues, and the persistent question of gender equality in the tech workforce, when I read Alexis Ohanian’s open letter in The Hill, about the value of parental leave. He has established a system at Reddit, where employees are entitled to 16 weeks parental leave on the birth of a child. Crucially, he has taken his own full leave entitlement in the last year, after he and Serena Williams had their first child.

I’ve written before about the issues raised by the amount of parental leave taken by tech CEOs.  In the cases of Marissa Meyer or Mark Zuckerberg, the practice of modelling a culture where both men and women would be encouraged to take leave in the future, fell short.  In Meyer’s case, this was because she took ultra-short leave herself, and arranged to have her children accommodated alongside her office at work, while simultaneously banning homeworking for employees; in Zuckerberg’s case,  because he took only half of the full leave entitlement available to the wider workforce at Facebook. So hats off to Ohanian, for at least taking up his full leave entitlement, and not consigning it to the ‘for the juniors’ pile.

I’ve also been reading about the Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Commons, Julian Smith, who has been in hot water over pairing arrangements, in relation to close votes on Brexit last week.  ‘Pairing’ allows MPs from opposing parties to cancel out each other’s vote, if one of them cannot attend parliament. If one of the pair is absent, the other agrees not to vote, so as to maintain the balance of voting behaviour across the House.  This procedure has now become bound up with the lack of formal parental leave for MPs.  Pairing arrangements are vital during the period following birth, when women are on maternity leave, or when men are taking paternity or parental leave.  Last week, on crucial Brexit votes, Brandon Lewis defied his pairing arrangement with Jo Swinson (the Lib Dem’s deputy leader, who has recently had her second child), by voting all the same.  Julian Smith has claimed that this was an error, while rumours have it, that breaches of pairing may have been encouraged. Breakdown of the pairing system is a problem, not just because of the breach of trust and its implications for high politics, but also because of the way it rides roughshod over the rights of working parents to take leave, and not to be discriminated against for breaks in their working history.  Members of parliament should be setting an example of fairness on this issue, as they legislate for the rights of others.

My thinking about model employers was nudged further by news that a New Zealand firm has experimented with giving its employees a 4-day week on full pay – and has followed up on the results of a trial. Encouragingly, the New Zealanders found that their employees were more satisfied and less stressed during 4-day weeks. Employees had been consulted about how to implement the policy, and had contributed to ideas for increasing efficiency, including automation of some routine tasks.  The trial has been pronounced a huge success, with productivity rising by an estimated 20%. How much of employees’ greater satisfaction can be attributed to their extra day of leisure, and how much to the improvement in quality of their jobs through automation of the repetitive aspects of work, is perhaps worthy of further investigation. Gaby Hinsliff has written about the ‘smart’ use of tech, which can free  people up to do the most fulfilling parts of their job, and to allow more flexibility in when and how it is done.  Technology will have a role in the design of jobs in future, possibly leading to fewer hours of better quality work for greater numbers of people.  But the jury is still out, and there are plenty more dystopian views of how automation may affect the workforce – it’s a subject I might return to another time.

The idea of more equal distribution of work throughout society, brings us back full circle to the example set by men taking parental leave.  Fairness at work can not dodge questions of structural inequalities. Ohanian makes the point that the bar for men is set very low, in terms of expectations around their involvement in care of their children.  Women, meanwhile, face pressure to excel both in parenthood, and at work, in unsupportive systems (in the US, the lack of formal maternity leave for many, means that mothers often return to work only two weeks after childbirth).  Perhaps it helps men to contemplate taking leave when both partners in a couple have equivalent status and salaries, so that it is harder to justify defaulting to the traditional  breadwinner/homemaker models, where men carry on earning the same or more, and women step back from the workforce. Ohanian’s career success is more than matched by that of his wife, Serena Williams.

It remains the case that flexible working arrangements are more likely to be offered to those in higher status jobs, while people in frontline services or on production lines, must show up for all the hours available to them.  Those in service industries and care work – often low-paid, and often female – are unlikely to be able to access 4-day weeks on 5-days’ pay.  But perhaps their employers are missing a trick: since their employees are humans, in jobs requiring communication and empathy, they are amongst the ones most likely to benefit from a New Zealand-style 4 day week which could help prevent burn-out. They are not likely to be replaced by robots anytime soon.  Imagine how much we would all benefit if productivity in service sectors and social care, rose by 20% …. Imagine  if our idea of the model worker deviated more from that of a man in the office, with a wife who does most of the caring work…




All tomorrow’s parties (with apologies to The Velvet Underground)

5 Jul


And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?


A hand-me-down deal from who knows where

At all tomorrow’s parties

And where will we go, what will we be

When midnight comes around

Will we turn once more into Europe’s clown

And cry behind the door?


And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?


Which elements of yesterday’s deals

At all tomorrow’s parties?

And what will we do with Theresa’s fudge

When Brexit comes around?

Will we turn once more into Europe’s clown

And cry behind the door?


And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?


For Theresa’s fudge could be Europe’s clown

For whom none will go mourning

A hybrid fix, a hand-me-down deal

Of elements, a customs plan

Fit for one who sits outside

For all tomorrow’s parties




World Cup of Gender Equality 2018

11 Jun

The men’s football World Cup is about to kick off for the 21st time in Russia.  Back in 2014, when Brazil hosted the tournament, I thought it would be fun to compare how women fared in the competing countries, while everyone was engrossed in the male game.  I collated a few indicators and wrote a blog.  It seems only natural to return, and see how we are doing in 2018.

Of course, each time there’s a World Cup, the participating countries change.  So it’s impossible to compare all of the same countries over time.  This year’s teams are quite an interesting spread, with 20/32 having taken part last time, and two first-timers: Iceland and Panama.  The competition will feature the highest number of Nordic countries ever (3 – Denmark, Iceland and Sweden) alongside the highest number of Arabic-speaking countries (4 – Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia).

First among my gender equality indicators is the proportion of women in parliament, a reflection of women’s political participation, and easy to find data for all countries:


Source: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SG.GEN.PARL.ZS


In 2014, none of the countries in the top 3 on this measure had parliaments with more than 40% female members, but in 2018 this is true of 4 countries.  Iceland and Sweden are famous for their high rates of female representation, with 48% and 44% of members of parliament, respectively, being female; Senegal (42%) and Mexico (43%) are probably less well-known for progressiveness in this regard.  Back here, I have to use UK figures for England, and the figures have gone up quite a bit, with 32% of MPs women, compared to just 22% in 2014.  At the lower end of the table, Iran has doubled its proportion of women in parliament since 2014, from 3% to 6%.  Nigeria is one of a small number of countries to have reversed the trend,  with the proportion of women falling from 7% to 6%.  In 2014, Costa Rica headed the World Cup countries’ table with 39% of its parliamentarians female, compared to 35% today.


Next I’ve looked at gender pay gap data, a much more high profile issue in terms of equality, now, than it was back in 2014.  It’s considerably harder to get comparable data across the globe for this, but once again I’ve used a combination of OECD and Wage Indicator data to maximise coverage across World Cup countries.  The Wage Indicator data comes from surveys, rather than population data, but covers a wider range of countries:







In 2018, South Korea is just about tied for the highest gender pay gap with Brazil – albeit measured on different scales.  Whereas South Korea’s gender pay gap is virtually static on OECD measures since 2014, Brazil’s gap on Wage Indicator data has widened considerably.  Costa Rica has the lowest gender pay gap standing at 1.8% – unfortunately there was no information for this country in 2014.  However, Belgium, which had the lowest gender pay gap of World Cup countries then, has reduced its gap further, from 6% to 4.7% this year.  The UK, Germany and France are still reasonably close together in the middle of the table, but France has seen a bigger reduction in the gender pay gap since 2014, dropping to under 10% while the UK and Germany remain nearer to 15% on the OECD scale.  Of the Nordic countries, Denmark has the lowest gender pay gap, while data is much more patchily available for countries in the Middle East and Africa.


Finally, I turned to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Index, for an overall indication of women’s relative position in World Cup countries. For many years, Nordic countries have topped this Index, which looks at gaps between men and women in health, education, economics and politics.  Iceland, a World cup newcomer, is number one on the Gender Gap Index showing the greatest equality between men and women in 2017.  In the 2014 World Cup, Switzerland was the highest-ranking participating country, charting at number 9, in the Gender Gap Index for 2013.  The Swiss have now dropped to 21st place,  Here’s how the World Cup countries rank overall:

Source: https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2017


And here’s how the position of the 20 countries who appeared both in World Cup 2014, and again this year, have changed:



That so many countries have fallen down the WEF Index over four years, is a reminder that gender equality is rarely achieved in a linear fashion: countries can go through periods of both progress and decline, with women’s position fluctuating over time.  The tough economic situation of the last few years has probably impacted on women’s position in many nations.  And it should also be borne in mind that countries tend to ‘bunch’ on health measures, like gender gaps in life expectancy, and, at the top of the index, in matters of educational equality between men and women.  So changes in ranking can be particularly influenced by changes in political representation – the Russian World Cup hosts have declined in position since 2014, and rank relatively low in terms of political equality between men and women.  France has recently seen increases in both its proportion of women in parliament and at the top of government, and this is important in its relatively big shift up the Index; by contrast Brazil’s political empowerment rating has dropped recently, accounting for its lower position in 2018.  Among countries playing in the World Cup this year, but not 2014, Peru and Senegal have been making progress on the Gender Gap Index.


So who would win a World Cup of Gender Equality?  Iceland tops two of my tables so has to be up there, and Costa Rica has the lowest gender pay gap.  Neither of these countries is hotly tipped for the football finals.  Simon Kuper reminded us in the FT Weekend that the World Cup’s relationship to other trends can be overhyped: ‘It often reflects sociological reality but doesn’t shape it’, he concluded.  I read elsewhere that Gary Lineker once said ‘Football is a simple game.  Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end the Germans always win’. If the look Angela Merkel gave Trump the other day is anything to go on, could it be that women’s empowerment and men’s footballing prowess are set to converge?? Perhaps it’s of some comfort in England that many argue that football World Cups are essentially unpredictable …




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